Hey everybody! Hope you're all enjoying sleeping in beds and going to the grocery store as much as we have been since returning to regular life. Kelly's been busy working and getting ready for a Ted Talk about our journey, while Seth has been busy writing. He's working a book about our journey, and has just launched a new web-magazine called Wandering Arms and focused on adaptive adventure, travel, and fitness. So if you like reading the trip blog, please like the Wandering Arms Facebook page and check out: http://wanderingarms.com to see what he's got cooking!
It's in the books! 315 days after leaving our home in Portland, we've made it to the end of the world in Ushuaia, Argentina. There isn't any more road to keep heading South!
[This dispatch comes to you from the middle of Argentina. This was during a stretch about two weeks long in the middle of June. We're currently in Comandante Luis Piedra Buena, getting ready to make our final push towards Ushuaia. More stories to come about what we've been up to lately]
I'm sitting at the table of a little cabaña in a pueblo whose name I can't remember. We only rode 29km today, barely a warmup, but the forecast calls for a stiff wind from the south tomorrow, with a chance of rain, so we decided to stop in our last chance for shelter before a 170km stretch of scrub desert. Not that the landscape's any different here, mostly dirt and thorns, but sufficiently irrigated to support some Willows and Ash that have already shed their leaves for the winter. There are a few streets, fewer stores, and a place for us to stay with a kitchen and a heater. Outside the window,the wind is blowing dust and tumbleweed down the street faster than we can pedal our bikes. We've been drinking maté, the steady sipping and refilling ritual perfectly suited to slow afternoons. Schwan is writing in her journal. I've been studying spanish by reading about a Scotsman whose drunken prognostications helped foil an English invasion of Argentina. We've put in enough kilometers in the past few days that I feel justified with our unplanned rest.
Since getting resupplied by my mom and sister, it feels like we're outfitted for a polar expedition - down jackets, lobster gloves, a stash of chemical hand warmers, alpaca hats and merino helmet liners, sleeping bag, sleeping bag liners, alpaca poncho cum blanket, extra sleeping bag for on top of the blanket. Our bikes have no more places onto which things can be bungeed. But it's most certainly better than freezing our dwindling asses off, which is what we had been doing through the desert nights leading up to Mendoza. It's only to get colder from here. The biggest problem with the cold is not the riding, or even the sleeping now that we're replete with coverings. It's packing up camp in the morning, when frost has crusted the inside of the rainfly and the short days force movement before the sun's rays have crept over the long horizon.
The tent, warmed by our bodies, is the only shelter we have. The endless plains covered in jarilla bushes provide little in the way of windbreaks. Everything that can be done inside the tent is done before exiting its heat island. Schwan makes coffee under the vestibule, wrapped in down, head sticking through a poncho. We sip the brew while still wrapped in our sleeping bags. Stuffing the sleeping bag in its compression sack generates a little warmth so I do that before I lay riding clothes on my lap and steel myself to expose flesh to air. Schwan wears gloves but her toes are always frozen. My hands barely function at baseline, less when frozen, even less when hampered by gloves. So the few tasks I have enough function to do must be accomplished between stretches of coaxing dexterity back to my fingers by putting them down my pants.
It's in these mornings I get a sense behind the looks people give us when we say we're heading for Ushuaia in the depths of winter. But both Schwan and I would take this any day over the sweltering humidity of mainland Mexico or northern South America. The cold might not be comfortable, but jackets and blankets are a lot more portable than air-conditioning, and movement generates its own heat.
The wind comes as forecast, picking up on our first night in the cabaña. At 2am the rains join, thrust through a crack in the window to land on Schwan's face as she sleeps a few feet away. The rain only lasts for a few hours (from what Schwan tells me, I slumber soundly for all but the start of the deluge), but the wind continues for the rest of the next day. It is a good day. Schwan and I read over cups of French Press coffee after 11 and 12 hours of sleep, respectively. I occasionally look up when the wind notes rise to a whoosh, and watch the weeping part of the willow in the side yard stretch horizontal to the north. I return to my book. Later, my Spanish study takes the form of a 19th century Buenos Aires heiress who jilts the arranged affections of an older cousin for the romance of a younger one. General consternation ensues. For my part, I learn that mujeriego means womanizer, and jugador (player) is used the same way in Spanish as it is in English (no odie el jugador odie el juego).
In the afternoon we watch bad tv and then the opening match of the World Cup, which, with a satellite feed, features some delightfully British announcers. Everything is going well until I get ready to take a shower and Kelly pulls the bandages off the burns on my right foot. [At another cabaña, a little more than a week earlier, Schwan and I had been finishing a shower, and when she went to turn the water off, the hot stuck open, sending a stream of scalding water over my foot and leg, melting through my top layers of skin before she could get it off, and I could get my foot out of the way. So since then, we've been dealing with dressing a trifecta of second degree burns, one of which (right foot, extending to my toes) is rather large and gooey. Just one more thing to do before and after riding 50+ mile days. Luckily, our medical kit contains a good amount of fancy wound care supplies.] Now the foot is all swoll up like an inflated rubber glove and warmer than the rest of my leg. Not good. I take a shower and elevate my leg, hoping that the swelling is more from sitting position than a nasty infection.
In the morning the swelling has gone down a little but not all the way and we decide to stay a day longer. We're about 200km in either direction from any real medical care, but at least there's a clinic in this little pueblo. Schwan heads there to see if see can get any antibiotics (our medical kit contains antibiotics for stomach bugs, urinary tract infections, and MRSA, but not for a simple skin infection, lesson learned). She goes with the lady who's owns the cabaña. Guy in wheelchair with second degree burn is likely to cause more hullabaloo than we need, so I stay put. They won't be able to do anything we haven't already done, and our wound care supplies are no doubt better suited than anything they would have on hand, we just need antibiotics. At first, the clinic won't give her anything without seeing me, seeming to prefer to take me hours away to a hospital in their pickup cum ambulance than hand over some Amoxicillin. Schwan returns frustrated. The lady who owns the cabaña, however, understands our predicament and returns 20 mins later with a supply of Amoxicillin.
I spend the day with my foot up on a chair, and that night it looks a little better. Still angry, but better. We leave in the morning heading towards Neuquén. Back into scrub desert and sleeping behind dirt mounds. We keep a close eye on my foot, to our surprise, and delight, it looks slightly better every time we change the dressing. It's the combination of having my leg stretched straight out in front of me and continuous aerobic activity that helps the burn heal much faster than it would at home. It's when the movement stops that things start to look bad.
Two days later, quite unexpectedly, we cross into Patagonia. The morning after sleeping in a little roadside motel owned by the Automobile Club of Argentina, we cross over the Rio Colorado and are confronted by a large sign welcoming our entrance to the Patagonia region. More or less, the whole trip has been leading up to this moment. Whatever else happened, we knew we wanted to make it to Patagonia. I had been riding under the false impression that the demarcation for Patagonia was at the Rio Negro (thanks Chatwin!), another 150km or so to the south. Now, we've rolled into Patagonia and I wouldn't even have noticed if Schwan didn't point out the sign. The shrubs on this side of the river look much the same as the shrubs on the other. We stop to take a picture, then keep on riding.
This is about the time that the traffic turns from annoying to malicious. We are riding down the narrow road, with no shoulder, and a line of traffic coming towards us, when a semi approaches from behind and starts laying on his horn. He doesn't want to slow down and we have no where to go. We keep riding and he slams on his brakes at the last minute, hovering about 3 feet from my back wheels as he waits for the traffic to pass. When it does, he floors it and swerves to the inside, starting about 2 feet from us and then deliberately squeezing in as he passes, whipping his trailer towards us and almost running us right off the road. Schwan flips him off and I would if I could. For the next week or so, first as we approach Neuquén, and then as we head east along Ruta 22, this is to become the norm. There is a ton of traffic, a narrow road with no shoulder, and the drivers are fast, impatient, and downright mean. Three more semi's try to run us off the road, a number of cars buzz us at high speed when nobody else is in the other lane. It's dangerous and f-ing stressful. After 4 or 5 days of this we're ready to pack up and call it a trip if the conditions don't improve. The shoulder is too soft and the drop too large to simply swerve onto when there's traffic behind us. The topper comes when a van slows down to wait to pass us and a cop rear ends him.
In the midst of this stretch from hell, distraction comes in a rather sad package. We have just eaten lunch in a pueblo surrounded by desert and Schwan needs to pee. We ride out of town and find a gravel drive leading to scrubby nowhere. We pull into it. About 20ft away a little dog is flitting between the bushes scrounging for food and there's none to be had. Looking closer, it is a puppy, skin over skeleton, joints looking like they're about to pierce her mottled brown fur. Kelly can't take her eyes off it and immediately starts digging through the food bag for some sandwich cheese. The dog is watching now, she has sweet, fearful eyes, and she shivers violently between every movement. Kelly takes the cheese to her but she keep scurrying away, sheltering behind the thorn brush before Kelly can coax her to a piece of cheddar. Now, she won't stop eating, gobbling up anything put in front of here. Like a concentration camp survivor, I'm afraid that the gorge could kill her.
Of all the street dogs we've seen on this trip, and there have been a lot, this is the skinniest. And with the complete lack of food, water, and shelter, along with sub-freezing nights, no doubt the closest to death. Shivering and skeletal as she is, she probably only has another night or two in her. Kelly is beside herself. Before long, she's rationalizing taking her with us. "Look, she so tiny she can just ride in the bag up front. She'll fit. I can put the food somewhere else..."
I've heard this before, but I've a feeling that this time she means it. I put on my rational voice. "You do realize we can't take her home. We can't take her into Chile, or into hotels. We can't camp every night, what exactly are we going to do with her?"
"We'll figure something out."
This is not really an answer. But I can't bring myself to argue with her, because this dog is too far gone, because we both know that leaving her here is a death sentence. Before I know it, Kelly has our lunch supplies stuffed elsewhere on our bikes and she's hoisted the pup into the reusable grocery bag on her front rack. We start pedaling, and after a few minutes of squirming, the pup settles into the relative warmth of the bag.
Camp is a clearing on the far side of some rail tracks and while we unpack the dog is too cold, too lethargic to move from the bag. Schwan puts her shirt in the bag for more insulation and we go about our business. Dinner is one-pot pasta and the dog finally perks up at the smell of food. We understand: when nutrition and warmth are hard to come by, you can think of little else. Belly full of pasta water, cheese, and bread, she sleeps the night curled on Schwan's shirt under the cover of our vestibule.
By the time we reach the next town, Choele Choel, it's clear that carrying her along any farther just won't do. After 2 days of food and warmth she's already emerging from her lethargy. Riding, she alternates between curled slumber and wriggling discontent. When stopped she is beholden only to food, whether from our snacking or following her nose into the surrounding fields and desert. I can only imagine how difficult she'll be to control when the steady diet rekindles her puppy energy. We roll into town to look for a room and Schwan is already trying to mentally prepare to let her go. "If she jumps off the bike when I'm looking at a room, so be it." She tells me. "We can't watch her every second."
It's true. But I know the thought of letting the pup back into the world of scraping for a meals and finding shelter in the nooks and crannies of random buildings is killing her inside. Of course, the dog stays put when Schwan goes to look at the first room (overpriced), she is not going to make this easy.
We take the pup to another ACA motel and sneak her into the room, lay a blanket by the heater and buy her a small bag of dog food. From here, we are heading back into another long stretch of desert, ever south, into colder temperatures and stronger winds. This motel is set back from the main road, on large grounds with trees and outbuildings, with only one other, well fed, dog. There is a restaurant and a constant flow of travelers for a steady supply of scraps. We decide that this place is about the best chance we can give her. In the morning, we leave her outside, munching on the bag of dog food, and ride away. We tell ourselves that she's better off than when we found her, that we've at least given her a chance to survive. But it feels hollow. While such thoughts might make me feel better with the decision, they have little bearing on her, who will still have to scrape, scrounge, and shiver through the winter. Kelly is crushed. Whatever her brain says, her heart still feels like we could've, should've done more.
We ride back into town, back to our normally scheduled activities, to get some road food at the supermarket. On the way we're flagged down by a bushy-mustached fellow standing in front of his white van, 'Rody and his Keyboard: Music for you.' painted on the side. He is quite excited about my bike, and wants us to stop by his house, to see some sort of articulating front-wheel tricycle that he's built. He's too genuinely excited for us to say no, especially when we only have a 30km day ahead.
20 minutes later, while Kelly's in the grocery store, he pulls up in his van, and delivers me a map to his house, hand drawn on notebook paper, complete with distances, relevant landmarks, and a compass rose.
A few hours later, we see his van parked by a little restaurant and, per his map, pull into his drive. It's a modest, one-level house, tucked behind the restaurant. He comes out and greets us like old friends, introduces us to his son and his son's wife and daughter. Rody is excited about my bicycle, our trip, all the luggage Schwan is carrying, the 3-wheeled contraption he's built...well, Rody is excited about a lot of things. He takes us to the lean-to out back to present the dune buggy he's built, with two wheels up front and one in back. It looks like something out of Mad Max. It looks like a helluva lot of fun and I tell him so. We show him all our gear. Suddenly he gets a spark in his eye. "Do you like music?" he asks.
"Yes" I respond.
"Can I play you some music?"
"That would be fantastic."
Rody shuffles into his house and returns with an old metal stand that he unfolds and settles into the dirt in front of his door. He goes back into the house and this time comes back out with a keyboard. He runs a power line from the house and does some fiddling with the Yamaha, muttering something about not speaking Japanese. "How bout some rock?"
He hits a back beat and starts jamming out the melody for Dire Straight's "Sultans of Swing." He's rocking out, hunched shoulders and head bobbing over the keys. Now he's freestyling lyrics, singing about his new friends who came by bicycle, working the crowd (of two), and giving shout outs to Patagonia. As the wind whips through a stand of birch, we are treated to a three song concert with Dire Straights, an Argentine folk song, and a Spanish cover of "Jailhouse Rock" on the ticket.
After the show we decide to get some lunch with Rody at the little parilla (grill) next to his house. Inside, it's dark and quiet but for the sounds of a World Cup game on the television. We sit at a worn wooden table and the only other patron, a square-jawed man with blond hair and blue eyes, introduces himself in halting English. He's a host for WarmShowers (basically a touring cyclist version of Couchsurfing), and offers us a place to stay when we pass through Puerto Madryn (about a week away). He returns to his table when his fries and fried steak arrives, eats, and on his way out pays for his own meal and ours that we've yet to eat. Such generosity is not uncommon on the road, but it still bewilders us and we can do nothing but be thankful.
We eat enormous, mushy bread sandwiches and talk with Rody. Chile is playing Ecuador on the flat screen and the Chileans look very good. "Look," Rody says. "They should not be that good, their players are not that good, but they play together all year long, they play as a team. It counts for a lot. All our players play in Europe, they never play together, they are not a team."
"But you have Messi." I say. Messi is a diminutive striker from the Argentine pampas, who can often be seen strolling around the pitch with hunched shoulders and a flat expression. He is usually the least impressive physical presence on the pitch, while also being the best player in the world. When he is on ball, the spark is lit, and he dances like the ball is attached to his foot, toying with defenders, seeing the geometry of the field like only a genius can, and pulling entire defenses around with his every feint.
"Yes, yes." Rody waives his hand dismissively. "That helps. But all we have is Messi. Our team is Messi, Messi, and Messi." Rody looks around like he is a Cold War conspirator about to divulge state secrets, then leans towards me and lowers his voice. "Argentina is not going to do anything this World Cup. We are terrible, you will see." He sits back up and says no more.
The waiter, a young man with a neat beard, wearing a synthetic sports shirt, is standing with his arms crossed, watching the game. "How big is the rivalry between Argentina and Chile?" I ask. "Can you root for them?"
"Sure," he says. "For me, I'm not too concerned with the rivalry. But I know a lot of Chileans who live, and travel down here. In other parts of the country, and with the older generations, it means a lot more."
"Why do you think that is?" I ask.
"Well, did you know that Chile supported Britain in the Malvinas (Faulkland Islands) war? There are a lot of grievances." He says.
On cue, the voice of the older generation leans in again. "The Chileans are not all bad." Rody says. "But they are arrogant." He mimes puffing his chest up. "They think they're more important than they are. They forget that San Martín (the general who liberated Argentina, Chile, and Peru from Spanish control) was Argentine."
After lunch we say goodbye to Rody and get back on our bikes. We're off to find a warm bed for the night, enjoying these pleasures of civilization when we can. Tomorrow we head back out into the scrubland, into the great wide nothing. We've made it to Patagonia, but still have a long ways to go.
If you have seen our Facebook page or read many of the other blog posts, you'll see that most of our social media has been pretty positive. And if you read most other blogs from touring cyclists, you'll realize the same pattern is there too. Something that appears to be left out of most of this writing is some of the real dangers we face daily. Our parents realize these dangers as they have heard a few of the stories, though we have to limit that exposure because it's not fair for people to worry helplessly while we chug along. If you know me, you know that I can be sarcastically realistic and often times quite blunt. Here are some thoughts I've jotted down with minimal filtration from my conscience. And yes, many of these happen on a daily basis, some of them several times per day.
-Don't pass another car when you see a bike in the on-coming lane. Where exactly is that bike to go as two cars, buses or semis come at them at high speed head on?!!!!
-Pass slowly if you can't get into other lane. You might have to let off the gas, or even worse--hit your brakes!! And that slightly lost momentum might cost you a whopping 5 seconds of your day. Get over it and be glad you didn't just hit a cyclist.
-While you're at it, turn the wheel 1/2" to the left and get all the way over if there's no one in the other lane. All that energy you just expended might have made that cyclist's day or at least saved them a heart attack
-If you're on a motorcycle, don't feel any less compelled to get over. You've been buzzed by cars and understand how much it sucks. Treat others how you want to be treated.
-If you're going to honk, give a little tap tap tap as you approach, then a wave. Don't lay on your horn right next to the cyclist. You ever stood next to a car, bus, or semi as they hit the horn? Pretty gnarly. Don't do it.
-Don't throw anything at, or on a cyclist as you pass them.
-If you're a dog, stop chasing bikes. If you have a dog who chases bikes, stop them or distract them. Don't just sit and stare while your dog goes on the attack. If you do the latter, don't get mad when I start whaling rocks at them.
- If there is no bike lane or shoulder, guess what?! That cyclist has to ride in the lane with you! Acknowledge it, accept it and follow the passing hints above.
-If there is a shoulder, that doesn't always mean it's passable. There are many things we cyclists see that a speeding motorist wouldn't....glass, nails, random sharp metal bits, roadkill, gravel, etc. If we come out of the shoulder into the lane, we're probably not trying to be an ass and get in your way. We're probably trying to avoid a flat or a busted rim.
-If there's a construction zone, bikes have to ride through it too. And there's probably no other way for that bike to go either. And trust me, he/she doesn't want to be there anymore than you want them there. That doesn't give you the right to be a bigger asshole. Just slow down and take a chill pill. And realize that gravel is a lot harder to ride on than it looks.
-If you see a bike swerve, it's probably not because they're drunk. Chances are, there's a hole or divot that you'd never notice in a million years behind the wheel. Give them a break. That hole that isn't noticeable to a car could bust a spoke, an entire wheel or even worse, cause the cyclist to fall if there's any sort of speed (and if you're like me, I typically want to go as fast as safely possible....). So dear driver, as mentioned before, give the bike space.
-If there's a bike stopped on the side of the road, they still deserve space. They're still just a person on a bike. Only now they're stationary instead of moving. Your displaced wind could be even more disruptive.
-If you decide to stop to help or talk to the stopped cyclist, don't force on them what YOU think is helpful. ASK if or what they need first. If you have something (i.e. water, tools, food, etc), feel free to offer but if the cyclist declines, accept it and move on. A stranded cyclist will ask for help if needed. Thanks in advance.
-When trying to get a cyclist's attention by rude whistling, and/or blatant laughing, don't be sad if you're ignored or maybe even flipped off. Remember that we're humans. We just happened to be on a bike.
-You know how much it sucks to drive in the rain, right? Guess what? It sucks even more to ride a bike in the rain. Yes, sometimes we have the option to get off the road. Other times we don't. Please be considerate of the spray created by your tires as you pass. We might be wet already, but that doesn't make road spray any more desirable.
-Hey Mr. Argentine semi driver. The purposeful fishtail of your trailer to knock us off the road was completely, utterly, and totally uncalled for. I will never, ever forget your rude actions though I would never treat another person as you did us.
Coming from a city like Portland, I understand there are asshole cyclists too. I try not to be one of them and only run red lights when there's no traffic around. Remember my perspective of having been on the road in Oregon, California, Mexico or South America for a total of about 9 months, at least 5-6 days of the week for 6-8 hours per day. We've seen a lot of various behaviors that seem to trend differently depending on the country. And of course not all drivers are mean to us, but there are always the bad apples that tend to spoil the moment, afternoon, or even the day. Congratulations, Peru, per capita you have the biggest dicks on the road. As one of our friends stated, "you could use a little education in basic human civility" -- and unfortunately, we agree when speaking of the treatment of cyclists. Ecuador has the nicest roadways and Bolivia has the worst. Argentina, well.....coming out of Peru and Bolivia, we had high expectations and those were met upon entering your country. However, as we're nearing 2 months here, your drivers seem to get worse and worse with each passing day. Unfortunately you are like all other places we've visited. It seems your residents are like many of us in the states -- you turn into complete asses once behind the wheel. Terribly sad. For as welcome as you've made us feel in other respects, we had hoped your friendliness would extend to the roadways.
As I slow down my heart rate and quit thinking about the total fear we've had while riding through some of the sections of this trip, I want to thank all of those drivers who have slowed down, nearly stopping traffic to allow space to pass us. Thanks especially to the semis and bus drivers who appear to realize their size and respect our vulnerability as we share the same roads.
As we continue to push southward to Ushuaia, we remain ever cautious on the roads and do our best to be as visible as possible. If you pass a cyclist while driving today, give them space and a wave. Guarantee it'll make both of you feel better.
It's official: The Long Road South has crossed into Patagonia! Nearly 9 months after leaving our home in Portland we've entered the final stretch of our journey. When we planned this expedition, we set the region of Patagonia as a goal because we didn't exactly know how far we'd be able to make it, as nothing quite like this had been done before. Though everything hasn't gone as planned, we can say we've pushed ourselves as far as our bodies and resources have allowed. We'd like to give a huge THANK YOU! to all those who've supported us since this expedition was just a big idea instead of a sure thing. Those who said, "how can we make this happen?" instead of, "this is why it won't work."
-Seven Corners Cycles (www.sevencornerscycles.com), who saved us countless dollars and headaches getting our bikes ready to roll, and hosted a fantastic departure party.
-Adapt Training (www.adapttraining.com), who helped get our bodies ready for the beating we've taken over the last 9 months, and provided the tools to keep them functioning throughout.
-Box Wheelchairs (www.boxwheelchairs.com), who built a wheelchair capable of handling the intense and varied demands of a trip like this.
-Challenged Athletes Foundation (www.challengedatheletes.org), who provided a grant that bought the handcycle Seth is riding.
-Camelbak (www.camelbak.com), who provided us the gear to stay hydrated over the long haul.
-Linda Jeo Zerba @ Big Squirrel (www.bigsquirrel.com), who helped us figure out how to express what, exactly, we're trying to do. Branding ain't our thing, but luckily it's hers'.
- Matt Geiger @ Blank Brand, who made us some great bags, straps, and other custom gear.
- Baristadors Coffee via Cheri Schoebel (www.baristadorscoffee.com), who've kept us caffeinated and proven the Portland coffee is some of the best in the world.
-Oregon Disability Sports (www.oregondisabilitysports.net), who enabled Seth (and many, many others) to rediscover the possibility and power of movement.
-Smart Wool (www.smartwool.com), without whom we'd be a lot more stinky.
-Big Agnes (www.bigagnes.com), the little outdoors company that thought we could.
Not to mention the long list of amazing individuals (too many to list here) who've donated and provided other support, without whom we'd never made it out of Portland. Our friends and family, who've done more than we could ever explain, deserve more thanks than we can give.The support we've received since we left, the well wishes, words of encouragement, and the fact of knowing that thousands of people are following along with us, has made all the difficulties -packing up camp in below freezing temperatures, battling Latin American traffic, and eating white bread and cheese for more meals than anyone should ever have to, to name a few - a whole lot easier to deal with. You're all amazing and we can't thank you enough!
So now that we've reached Patagonia, what next? We keep heading south, of course! Patagonia is enormous, and we've just reached the start of the end of the world. Ushuaia is the end of the road and the intended end of our trip. Ahead lies another 1,400 miles of howling winds, scrub desert, freezing nights, and vast tracts of uninhabited nothing. Wouldn't seem right if the last stretch of a trip like this was easy, now would it?
Been awhile again hasn't it? Sorry folks, but we've been on a bit of a whirlwind since we left our last respite in Puno, Peru. Once we left Puno we started a mad dash through Bolivia, that morphed into a mad dash through northern Agrentina to get to Mendoza. Hard to really process Bolivia as we spent a grand total of 7 days there. It featured some of the most amazing scenery of the trip. For the first day we rode next to the dark blue waters of Lake Titicaca, fronted by multi-colored Quinoa fields and backed by the jagged, now snow-capped Andes.
Bolivia also featured some of the worst roads of the trip, from asphalt rutted like a slalom course, washboard gravel, to 200km of construction torn freeway. Luckily, it was also one of the easiest countries we've been in to find wild camping. Basically ride until four or so, then find a spot in the vast expanse of plains that bordered the road. Definitely made it easier to put in the miles we needed to - 280 miles in a week? Sure, why not. Let's get to Argentina!
Our experience with Bolivia boils down to: amazing scenery, amazing people out in the country, minimal sevices, terrible drivers, worse roads. Luckily, the Altiplano is rather flat (imagine that) and we had tailwinds most of the way between Desaquadero and Oruro. Riding from sunup to about 2 hours before sunset, eating our stash of dehydrated food, and shivering through the 12,000ft nights, we were able to keep pace to make it in time for the train to Villazon, on the border of Argentina.
These folk were awesome. Met dad while setting up camp as he drove some cattle back from pasture, he came back with wife and daughters (the shawl wrapped around the lady is holding a passed out baby girl). The lady and her son (uniformed up for school) brought us some milk at daybreak that she'd just milked from the cow. Hot and mixed with a little bit of sugar, oh so delicious.
As beautiful as Bolivia was, once riding the rails through the south of the country, we knew we'd made the right decision to trade the riding for the rails. Southern Bolivia is a vast desert with little to nothing for hundred mile stretches. At the speed we travel, without support, we knew we would not be able to carry the supplies necessary to jump the gaps. It always sucks having to cheat and motor through some segments, but it helps a little when the landscape shows you why you made the right decision.
This is the sign that greeted us upon our arrival in Argentina, after our biggest hassle of a border crossing this trip (thanks absurdly restrictive U.S. visa policies triggering "reciprocity fees" across South America!). A nice reminder that, though we may be entering the last country of the trip (unless you count a 3 day jaunt across Chilean Tierra del Fuego), we still have a long way to go. Momma and sister McBride were planning to come meet us in Mendoza, a little over 1,000 miles away, in a little less than a month. We'd knew we'd have to boogie, so boogie we did. First week in Argentina looked something like this.
After descending from the high plains, through long miles of weathered desert stone, we arrived in a humid, jungly heat box. Heading south from Jujuy, (people kept telling us that Jujuy was an ugly town, but after 2 months of Andean pueblos, it seemed rather lovely) we entered a stretch that had us feeling like we were back on mainland Mexico - sugar cane rising 10ft over the road, bushes singing with a thousand insects, and nasty little flies that'll leave bloody welts before you can ever feel them land. It was even hot. Stupid heat. Hot enough that we stayed up past dark waiting for the tent to cool off enough to sleep. Made a lot of miserable memories come flooding back in. Luckily we knew that once we climbed over a little mountain range heading east, we'd be back into the cool nights of the desert. Of course, after bitching about the heat, before climbing over said mountain range, we got hit with a two-day deluge. We rode through the rain - spraying off truck tires, arcing off of our tires, dripping off hair and dribbling down necks. Set up camp in the rain - turning dirt to mud, soaking the inside of bags in the time it took to pull gear out. Cooked in the rain, slept while it rained, woke to it still raining, broke down camp in the rain, then rode a full day without it ever stopping raining. Stupid rain. I guess too much of anything will have you dreaming about the opposite extreme.
Amazing when we did cross over that mountain range though, immediately it felt like we'd gone from mainland Mexico back to the Baja - scrubby green brush, cacti, and spindly trees. Back in the desert there wasn't a lot of anything between towns, and the towns were a long ways apart. For two weeks life was basically, ride, eat, ride, set up camp, eat, sleep repeat. At least any roadside tienda had good cheap wine to sooth our weary muscles, that and Lays potato chips, we ate a lot of lays potato chips and piles upon piles of eggs. Scenery was pretty damn amazing though...
So yeah, on May 28th we arrived in Mendoza in time to meet the fam. Since leaving Puno, Peru we completed our longest stretch of the trip, covering 1,250 miles in just over a month. This leg featured a number of firsts for the trip, including: Our farthest month of the trip (1,066 miles), our farthest week of the trip (316 miles), our longest and 2nd longest days of riding (81 and 80 miles), and our longest stretch without a rest day (8 days and 360 miles). Still feels like a bit of a blur, and there's a ton of stories I'm sure I'm forgetting. But it's late, we rode 50 miles today and are riding 50 more tomorrow. Such is life when you're trying to get to the end of the world. Guess you'll have to wait for the book for the rest of the dirty details. Onward!
Of course, actually banging around a little bit never hurts. Unfortunately, the Trujillo team only has a few players that will class into the sport. For now, they're being helped by some players with more function, and able-bodied volunteers so they can actually play and learn the game. Here's hoping they can coax some more quads out of the woodwork.
Us with some French cyclists who are doing a similar South American tour, and a local cyclist from Trujillo. Don't let Jared's smile fool you, he's roasting from the outside in, hating the world, and wondering why in the hell he paid to fly halfway around the world for a self-induced sufferfest. Welcome to cycle touring ol' buddy!
In Huanchaco we've drifted back onto the backpacker trail. It's a surf town and people are here to surf, whether or not they know how to. Along the malecon is a continual assortment of hostels, surf schools, and ceviche restaurants. We wind up at the Meri Surf Hostel. It's an adhoc sort of place, with minimal services, cheap beer and food, and as might be suspected, a rather mellow vibe. We rest for 4 days while waiting for Jared. It's a strange and comforting thing, being back among other travelers, and at the hostel there are quite a few who have been on the road for longer than we have. When we check in, Mark and Jason are hanging around the breezy courtyard/communal kitchen. Mark is a young man from Salem with a shaved head and a gentle voice, who's been traveling around the world for 18 months. Mark is quiet in the face of the usual traveler braggadocio, but when prodded for stories, tells a cautionary tale about loneliness and being held hostage by Bedouins in Egypt. Jason has long, blond dreads and a strange, hovering awkwardness, and professes to subsist entirely on fruit. He has been in country for an undisclosed amount of time looking for property to start a fruit plantation. On his wrist is a flower drawn in purple marker and one morning Mark asks him what it is. "Oh, I have this parasite wound, something from the jungle, and I decided to draw a flower on it," Jason says. Looking closer, there is indeed a deep hole where's the flower's stigma should be, crusted blood around the edges.
"Shouldn't you cover that?" Mark asks.
"Nah, the parasite's already into my blood, covering it wouldn't help. I went to a clinic to check it out, apparently it's pretty rare. They recommended 21 days of injections, but I didn't want to do that."
"Well, are there any long term effects from the parasite?"
"Yeah. It could kill me, I guess. But it's all good, I'm taking some natural medicine for it."
Mark stops asking questions.
The next morning a ragged group arrives while Kelly and I are drinking coffee, Jason digging into a pineapple. One, with loose, linen pants, and a lilting wonder to his voice, comes to say hi. "That's a beautiful flower." He comments. The parasite story follows. "Whoa, you need to just squirt some of that pineapple juice in there," the new guy recommends.
"What, to feed it?" Kelly asks.
"Nah, it's like super toxic for that parasite!" The new guy says. "There's like too many enzymes, make that fucker go 'argggaharrggg!" He mimes a parasite being covered in acid.
Jason keeps eating his pineapple. The new guy and his crew proceed to have a 24hour, weed, rum, cocaine, and prescription drug fueled bender on the patio in front of our room before getting kicked out the next morning. After a few days, Kelly and I are ready to get back on the road.
Jared arrives with bike and panniers gleaming black, skin blinding white, eyes bleary from an all night bus ride from Lima. Jared doesn't like the heat, or the desert, or bright sunlight for that matter. But we'd called him in Colombia, from that devil's taint known as Girardote, when we'd been trying to decide whether or not we could continue the trip, and asked for his help. Help crossing the last hot stretch of the trip, help carrying water weight, and lifting gear to second floor hotel rooms, and he'd said sure, where do you want me to come? Peruvians get a funny look on their face when you ask them what the northern coast of their country is like, and it takes a second or two for them to respond, thinking of the best way to translate shithole to more diplomatic terms. Luckily, neither Kelly and I, nor Jared, have any idea of the hidden meanings behind "dry" or "breezy" or we might be hopping right back on the bus that Jared came up on.
Leaving Huanchaco, we're exhausted and slightly hungover, as is liable to happen the morning after Alaskans reunite. Luckily it's flat. We spend the morning navigating the frenzied free-for-all of Peruvian urban traffic, trying to reconcile the neat grids of a smartphone map with the surging chaos of our street-level view. At one point we're trying to decided whether we should go the wrong way down a one way street when a line of 5 buses come flying down the street and turn against the arrow. In Trujillo street signs aren't even a suggestion, people do whatever seems most expedient at the moment. The stress makes the kilometers tick by and it's barely past noon by the time we roll into the grimy port town of Salaverry, just beyond the sprawl of Trujillo. Salaverry, like most of northern Peru is dust and crumbling brick. But as we approach town there are beautiful stretches of concrete, a pedestrian walkway half finished but no longer under construction, as if the local government was trying to spruce the place up to attract some beachgoers from Trujillo but only thought as far as sidewalks, and while the concrete was being poured, decided no, maybe sidewalks won't help. We ride along the street and settle in the shade of a Ficus for lunch. It feels weird to have ridden 30k and barely feel like we've moved. Helps to not have to climb a mountain or four.
The next morning we're up early, ready for a real day. It's been since Mexico since we've been able to ride any significant distances on a consistent basis. The start/stop/struggle/sick/rest/repeat is starting to fray our resolve and the only relief is to put some miles in. We spin along the flats back to the PanAmerican, the sun starting to peek over a great, sandy hill. Shortly we start climbing. At 8am the sun is already strong, cooler air temps maybe, but the Humboldt current holds little sway over the intensity of the equatorial sun. After half an hour of climbing we stop to cool off in the shade of a highway sign. Jared's mayonnaise complexion is starting to look like a few spoonfuls of ketchup have been stirred in. I ask Jared if he's always hated the heat. "Well, it's not just hating it," he responds. "I'm really susceptible to it. I actually got heat stroke once in Juneau when I was a kid."
"Wait, what?" Kelly isn't sure she's heard right.
"Yeah, we were out at Echo Ranch (a quasi-summer camp at the end of the road where Juneau area schools would take students for a weekend of outdoorsy fun) and it was a sunny day. We went out fishing and all of a sudden I started to feel really hot, so I told the guy we were with and he was like 'whatever kid, keep fishing.' A few minutes later I was puking off the side of the skiff. They dropped me off on the shore and told me to go to the nurse. I wobbled back to the woods and found this big concrete slab that was in the shade and flopped down face first. Eventually someone found me and took me to the nurse. I spent the rest of the weekend sick in the nurse's station."
I look at Jared, then past him, to the heat shimmering over an endless expanse of sand. "So maybe you weren't the best guy to call to help us trek through the desert?"
We head back onto the sun and it climbs steeply as we ride. My mind is still wrapped around the topography of the mountains, and at every bend I expect the road to rear up in excruciating steepness. But we're no longer in the mountains, and the hills come and go as gentle slopes that make me hope I might not be as weak as Ecuador had suggested. We stop for an hour in the thin shade of an old bus. Normally, Kelly and I don't rest this long, always wanting to push towards whatever lay at the end of the day. But Jared doesn't have much saddle endurance and he likes to lay down where he can. And really, it's these moments that make the trip. For how often can a granola bar and a shaded patch of dirt offer utter contentment?
Of course, that contentment only lasts while we're stopped. As soon as we're back on the road it's stupid hot and the suffering begins anew. In a little shit town between two other shit towns a dog charges Kelly and Jared, then whirls around and locks in on me. Running full speed, mouth frothing with hateful barks. I bellow as loud as I can and whip my front tire towards the rabid looking hound as it closes. This scares him long enough long enough for me to pass, but then he's nipping at my back wheel until a barrage of stones from a local sends him quivering into submission.
Kelly and Jared are stopped just ahead. When I reach them Kelly is ready to keep moving, but sees Jared's face, flushed and fatigued, when she looks back to me. "Are you okay?" she asks him.
"I need shade." Jared states. Just up the road there is small store with a leafy tree in front. When we get there Jared leans his bike against the building wall, buys a big bottle of cold water, and starts dumping it on his head. He slumps down against a shaded wall with a rather vacant look in his eyes. "So fucking hot," he mutters.
I know how he feels, and it's not good. When the body passes the threshold of its ability to shed heat, it starts shutting down, overriding the brain as primary decision maker. It's a feeling I know all too well, but it's strange and surreal watching someone else go through it. I'm hot, but still functional. I watch Jared lay down on a lumpy patch of concrete, water dripping from his hair and laugh to myself at the absurdity of it - that to this last stretch of heat, we've`summoned the one person I've seen who has worse thermo-regulation than a quad.
We make it through the day by hop-scotching between shade spots. Jared's skin is baked and soon to blister. We feel bad that he's here because of us, that he's paid money to come suffer through his most miserable climate. But so it goes sometimes. Fortunately we have a bottle of rum, and coca-cola is one thing readily available in the desert. That night we drink, bullshit, and eat mediocre food. Jared buys a bottle of SPF 100 sunscreen and we get ready to do it all over again.
The next morning is cloudy and we climb from the start. At first a grinding annoyance, what looks flat but feels much harder than it should be, going and going for 10-15k, sweeping up to a decent steepness for the last few km while the sun came out in full force. Jared figures out he can take more rest riding at his own speed, blowing by me then Schwan to a shade spot and waiting for us to catch up. After a few stops we top out and whisk down a fast descent in a cool breeze.
At the bottom there's a collection of buildings even more ramshackle than normal out here. A faded Coca-Cola sign hangs above a door. The only open patch of shade is under a small out building so I guide my bike there. When Kelly and Jared return with cold water and cokes, Kelly notices a companion lying on a ledge of the outbuilding just above my view. A dead cat. And it'd been there a while, legs splayed, fur and skin dried out in natural mummification. It's not hidden, clearly the occupants of this patch of sand have had chance to observe the slow process of decay and decided to leave it where it lay. It still stinks a little, but this is where the shade is, so we sit and cool off. In front of the main building there are a few stacks of truck tires, covered by scraps of board. One stack holds chickens, another ducks. A litter of puppies cries from behind a tarp. A truck packed high with chicken crates pulls off the Pan American to stop a moment to buy drinks. While the drivers are occupied a mother/daughter team run out and steal eggs from the holes of a low crate, running off with the loot wrapped in the bottom of their shirts. The poverty and isolation are laid out in the open, I shudder at the thought of daily existence here, the endless numbing sameness. The lesser shit towns (let alone the greater) we've passed seem awash with possibility compared to this roadside purgatory. It's easy to understand why the great mono-theistic religions - Christianity, Moslem, Judaism - arose from desert cultures: this can't be all there is. There must be some divine reality greater than this world of sand and wind.
Back out on the road there is a slight downhill and a strong headwind. Schwan sucks in on Jared's back wheel, and I on hers, forming a draft train. Jared chugs at the front like a steam engine and I take all the rest I can, getting sucked along in their wake. The landscape is bleak, colors washed out like some post-apocalyptic vision. We push hard, there is nothing to do but move. Eventually, civilization begins to pop back up as we near the coast. People keep telling us that the city of Chimbote is dangerous: thieves and baddies, that we should pass through it as quick as possible. But the town before it is worse, with one dank love hotel, so we push on and find a sprawling hotel on the harbour, huge blocks of concrete and soviet architecture. It's across the street from a huge supermarket so we take a rest day in Chimbote, glad to find that Jared wants to do as little as we do.
After that first stretch, the next week and 400 kilometers or so of desert meld together like a strange deja vu. We wake early and struggle to get moving before the sun is up and hot. The morning are often cloudy but devoid of breeze. In the afternoon the clouds break and a headwind picks up, cooling our bodies but slowing our progress. The terrain is rolling with one or two big climbs a day. The land is sand and rock, as many shades of brown as there are greens in the jungle. There is smooth sand, and wind-rippled sand, there are big dunes and small dunes, sand that rises to the base of rocky peaks and sand that slopes gently to the ocean. There is nowhere to camp because the sand is deep to the edge of the highway and our bikes founder a foot removed from the pavement. The riding is not difficult but for the heat, the wind, and the vast nothingness between towns. There are power lines and occasional shacks constructed of reed. Our days are based on the distance between towns. At night we check into hotels or hostels, eat, and sleep. The food is meat or fish (mostly fried), rice and soggy french fries. One night Jared camps on the beach because the hotel is stupid expensive and walking through the sand is easier than rolling. At 2am he feels a stream of warm fluid spraying through the mesh of his tent: one of a roving pack of dogs marking his territory. In towns locals like to point and yell: "Hey Gringo!" "Gringo, gringo!" "Mira, Gringo!" or sentences that are fully formed but unintelligible as they usual wait until after we've passed to start yelling. The are usually excited to see us, and yelling random things is how they can best express that excitement.
One day we ride for 13 hours and 104 kilometers (our longest day time-wise, and 2nd longest distance of the trip) because the only thing between two towns is a small restaurant that serves rice, eggs, and a whole fish, fried complete with their toothy smiles.
After another rest day we ride 75 kilometers from Barranca to Chancay. The rode cuts inland and the headwind is brutal. At one point, battling stomach issues for days, I have to pull over make the sand my toilet, white ass hanging in the air off the side of my bike. When we catch up to Jared he is lying in the sand on the side of the road. We make sure he's okay and decide to keep moving. We are climbing a long hill and the wind is pushing us to barely moving. After about 30mins, we spot a few scrap-lumber buildings providing some shade. "We should probably stop here in case Jared needs some shade..." I say to Schwan.
"Yeah, that's what I was thinking," she says.
We shouldn't stop, there's too far to go and too little daylight, but out here it's never a good idea to pass up shade and the possibility of a cold drink. Just then a car slows next to us and the driver starts yelling: "Hey, hey! Your friend needs help!"
Seeing visions of Jared facedown in the sand, body baking under his already fried shell, we turn around and ride hard. A kilometer or so down the road we see him, upright, running his bike, beet red and pouring sweat. "I got a flat," he says then tells us the story: He'd gotten up from the sand after we'd left, only to find his back tire airless. Kelly has the pump and tire tools. Slow as we were, we weren't too far ahead so Jared started sprinting after us, screaming our names to the wind. He was able to gain a little ground but never close the gap, his words carried behind him as he yells. For two or more kilometers he ran his bike up the road, us lost in our own windy world before he hailed the car to come alert us.
"Jesus, no wonder you're so fucking sweaty." I say.
Kelly helps air his tire up, and it holds till we reach the buildings. One even has cold water. Inside there are sheets holding thousands upon thousands of flies. Outside they fill the air, cover our bags and bikes, swarm our bodies. We eat, drink and swat while Jared changes his tire and swats. It's a creepy scene, wondering what all the flies are doing here, not hard to imagine dead bodies in the back. Not much law out here after all. We leave as quick as we can. Back on the road the wind is whipping up the sand into a stinging haze, we can't even make out the top of the hill. The force of the wind is making this long, gentle slope feel as steep as the worst mountains of Ecuador. Jared and Kelly ride ahead while I turn myself inside out just to stay moving. The sand is pelting my neck and working its way into my mouth, unthinking, I spit to the right and the wind plasters it to my cheek. Sand washing in waves across the road, sand working its way through my shirt, covering my pants like I've been rolling around on the beach. This goes on for more than an hour, my arms sputtering but there's no choice but to keep pushing. No choice but hailing a ride to the next town, which all of us have been thinking about. But while we think about it, we keep riding. The hill finally tops out but the wind continues. On slight downhills my bike cuts the air better than Kelly's or Jared so I jump to the front to see if I can push the pace up a few kilometers an hour. We've taken too many breaks and we're going to be fighting to get off the road before dark. We keep pedaling hard, stopping to chug Cokes when our muscles start to empty. Just keep pedaling, I tell myself. By 4:30 fatigue is in full force, for me as much mental as in my arms. Kelly's legs are shot. Jared's taint hurts. When I catch a glimpse of Jared's face, it displays the same wobbly vacancy that heat had imparted. It helps to have one more person to share the pain with. The wind dies down and we are able to move with speed. Schwan gets a second wind and I sprint to stay on her back wheel. Jared stays behind me and just keeps turning the cranks. We make it to Chancay as the sun is reddening over the sea. We're all a little loopy from exhaustion, endorphins, and knowing that pushing so hard just gave us a rest day tomorrow. Jared asks how hard that was compared other tough days on the trip and I say it was right up there with the toughest. He seems at least a little proud of this.
The last few days to Lima are a cakewalk in comparison. The same desert but the vast nothingness peters into gradually densifying civilization. Mentally it's harder because now we just want to be in Lima, with Jared's friends Joe and Mareika, enjoying all the comforts that a city of 9 million offers. But you can't always have what you want so we keep dodging traffic, getting pointed and yelled at, and fighting the ever-present wind. In Ventanilla, a former slum that has been incorporated in the massive expanse of Lima, we stay in a love hotel. In Peru, these establishments are in every town. They're places you can rent in 3 hour increments, the front desk folk tend to look at you funny when you ask for a price for the whole night. In a country where a large percentage of the population lives until they're married (or 30+), they're a necessary means of privacy for young lovers. Luckily, the Ventanilla place is brand new, and (visibly) squeaky clean. The rooms are nice, except that Jared's window opens to a Chicken Broaster restaurant, and about 11 o'clock they fire up the stoves, turn on the music, and broast into the wee hours.
Riding into Lima the next day we only have about 30k to do. We're coming into 2 weeks of rest as we wait for Dylan to join us. It's the end of another segment, one we can finally be proud of. Since flying to South America, every segment of riding has necessitated some sort of motored rescue. Hills too steep, services too far apart, bodies too sick to function, the excuses are all valid but that doesn't make the failures sting any less. This stretch of desert and heat was one we were worried about. One we honestly didn't know if my body would be able to handle. We would've been on a bus again without Jared, without a friend willing to fly down to his personal climatic nemesis and struggle along with us. Riding into Lima it feels good to be back into a rhythm, a damn demanding rhythm, but that's the nature of a trip like this. Sure as hell looking forward to 2 weeks of nothing though.
The alarm for our bus stirs us at 4:15am, earlier than our earliest riding days. It doesn't matter what time you go to bed, 4:15 hurts. But to get out of these mountains, past the equatorial heat of the lowlands, 4:15 doesn't seem so bad. Our destination, Trujillo, is only 8 degrees of latitude south of the equator but the cold waters of the Humboldt current cool the climate a surprising amount. The Darien Gap sits at 8 degrees North, a sweltering hotbox that we'd no longer even consider trying to be active in. But the highs in Trujillo have been in the high 70's, low 80's, temperatures that are (hopefully) manageable. The mountains of northern Peru are too much - too big, too frequent, too steep, for us to cover any distance. So we must descend to the coast and Trujillo, making the bus a necessary evil.
We're packed and to the station by 6:30, soon rolling into the loading bays outside. There's already a few dozen people people waiting for buses, and they watch us roll in with the singular attention to which we've grown wearily accustomed. People stare, they stare hard, and we unload our bikes like we always do. Our bus is already there, and the driver's assistant is throwing bags into the undercarriage luggage bays. I roll up and tell him we're on his bus and we have bikes to load. He looks over at Kelly amid our pile of gear and spews a torrent of rage at me that is unintelligible at this hour of the morning. Yes, I say, the bikes will fit, where should we put them?
He shakes his head and storms into the station. Soon a man in a white polo strolls up and puts his hands in his pockets. These bikes are very big, he says.
Yes, but the wheels come off my bike, and the trailer comes off hers. They'll fit.
He nods and shrugs, to acknowledge that sure, they'll fit, and then dismiss that fact as unimportant. 30 dollars, he says.
$30? That's too much. The tickets were only $24!
He shakes his head. No, $30. Down here bus drivers operate their buses like their personal fiefdoms and this particular route is only serviced by one bus company. He has us over a barrel and he knows it.
We don't even have $30, we only have $25!
He remains unconcerned.
Kelly pulls my wallet out of her CamelBak pocket, her cheeks flushing in anger. Opening it up, we do have $30, not a coin more. She pulls out the last of our cash and hands it over. He slides it in his pocket, nods, and motions towards a bay on the waiting bus.
For $30, you help. Kelly says. She's working herself into a boiling rage. Kelly has a finely tuned sense of right and wrong and this interaction has put her over the top. The driver was too pompous in his skeeziness, too obviously fucking us over just because we're white foreigners (and therefore could obviously afford the bribe amount) and because we have no other option to get where he's going. I just want us and our gear to make it to Peru. She smirks in his face as he struggles to manage her bike and loaded trailer. Yes, it's heavy. She says.
She's in his ear the whole time they work to load our gear: $30 is a a lot of money. How many beers can you buy for $30?
No, only food.
I bet you buy more than food. Does this make you happy? Do you feel good about yourself? Will the beer make you feel good?
No beer, I only buy food!
No beer? Maybe you need to buy women then. How many women can you have with $30? Will the women make you happy? Maybe if you buy beer and women you'll feel good.
No! I'm a good man.
Kelly is unconcerned.
He tries to direct the loading of the bus, but Kelly's onto him like a pitbull on a chew toy: No, for $30 we put the bike where I want to put it. For $30, I say where this goes.
After a few minutes of this he cracks, throws his hands up, and has to walk away. Those who line their pockets of the vulnerability of others want the process to proceed like it's a normal thing, they aren't used to having it shoved back in their faces.
When the bikes are loaded, Kelly piggybacks me up onto the bus and the driver settles into the cab, lined with mother Mary and Jesus pictures, a rosary hanging above the steering wheel. I just hope they don't leave us when we have to get off the bus for border formalities. The only other people on the bus are three civilians (two guys and a girl) and seven nuns. The nuns are young, barely into their 20's, which seems both odd and sad, like baby-faced soldiers. We depart to the hominal singing of their habited cohorts, who have lined up to see them off.
I fight motion sickness for the first hour or more, as the bus winds and dips along the mountain roads. For hours we tangle through this knot of mountains, the landscape gradually drying out as we descend. Locals get on and off at squalid clusters of brick buildings. It's getting hot, both inside the bus and out. There's no air, and we can't get a window open. Outside people lounge, sweating under tin roofs, and lay in hammocks beneath the speckled shade of fruit trees. I don't feel guilty for riding the bus anymore. Having done it, and knowing that I simply can't handle the physiological stress provides a measure of peace.
The border is a muddy river with temporary shacks on either side. Kelly gets off with my passport, apparently they don't need to see me in person. On the other side of the road a man in military uniform sits beneath a plastic tent watching cars pass his checkpoint. After 10 minutes or so he gets up and waves down a car, which speeds by without a hint of acknowledgement. When the next one approaches he moves an orange traffic cone into the lane.
The poverty in the northern Peruvian hinterlands is numbing (or is it the heat?). Buildings are crumbling, whether made of mud or concrete, surrounded by dusty paths and trash. Everywhere trash, piled high or wind strewn to lay a tin and plastic sheet over the land. Goats roam near most houses, probably the only domesticated animals that can thrive in this scrubby wasteland. There are a few cows, whose ribs chafe at their skin. The sad, dirty reality of global inequality passes for hours on end. The hills get smaller and 7 or more hours in the land flattens out, soon we're zooming past the artificial green of irrigated agriculture. Near the coast, civilization creeps in, gas stations and Peruvian chain businesses. We pass five or more "Dino's" in an hour, it's some sort of concrete and construction supply and they must be doing well. There is always construction, rarely finished, whether by happenstance or design - rebar soars from concrete foundations, waiting the day that additional floors can be afforded. There's something both maddening and strangely ambitious about this.
The driver's assistant walks through the aisle offering to change dollars to soles. He doesn't ask us. It's miserably hot and I pass the time by rationing squirts of waters over my face and shifting uncomfortably in my seat. By the time we finally reach Piura, a little after 4pm, I'm cooked and have to will myself to function. We load our bikes and roll to the the next door station, which operates buses to Trujillo. The next bus is at 10:30pm. We buy tickets and the excess baggage charge for our bikes is negotiated up front by a smiley, reasonable youth. We have no problem paying a little extra to load our bikes, they are huge, so long as the fee isn't arbitrarily imposed based on how much one entitled scumbag thinks we can afford. Here, the days shifters are friendly and joke with me about smuggling their colleagues away to America.
We settle down for our 5 hour wait, though I'm too hot to do anything but dab myself with a wet rag and watch the station pulse. Around 6 the place fills up for a 7pm departure to the mountains. Some walk in with loads of saran wrapped cargo, others with only a purse. It's a packed house, with all eyes glued to some talent show on the television. So far there's a much wider variety of appearances than Ecuador, from pale olive skin with mile-high legs, to squat frames with cocoa skin and everything in between. Just after the 7pm bus leaves a (probably unlicensed) taxi/clown car and a rough and tumble family (mother and 5 youths, probably not all blood-related) squeeze out with a pile of luggage packed to the roof. I'm guessing they just missed their bus and they spend the next hour or more causing a ruckus between themselves, the ticket lady, security guard, and a random fat man who yells at everyone with a spittley fury, who appears to run the place like an iron sheik, though it's unclear what he actually does or whether anyone actually listens to him. More or less the drama plays out like this:
Fat man looks at family's tickets, yells at them. Family takes tickets to ticket lady and pleads with her. Ticket lady spend 20 minutes appearing to work on something. Security guard conferences with family. Mom returns to reason with ticket lady. Son yells at ticket lady. Fat man returns to yell at family. Son yells at fat man. Fat man yells at son. Son has no recourse but violence, and the fat man is much bigger than him. He walks away in frustrated rage of wounded machismo. Young daughter puts face through window to stare, forlorn, at ticket lady. Ticket lady appears to find some solution, shows mom. Mom looks pleased. Fat man returns to yell at ticket lady. Mom pleads with ticket lady. Fat man yells at snack shop waitress (unrelated). Fat man yells at ticket lady (again). Mom, dejected, walks outside to rejoin 2 children who've been watching luggage. Family waits another 30 minutes, then packs into a taxi and leaves. I wish I could hear everything that was being said, but it's probably more interesting that I couldn't.
At 10pm Kelly and the baggage guy get our bikes loaded onto the bus with no issues. When they're done the fat man comes up to us and looks down with a scowl. You paid very little to transport those bikes, he says.
I know, I say.
Yes, not much, Kelly says.
He stares at us. We stare back. He turns, shuffles to a moto-taxi, and disappears.
At 10:30 Kelly piggybacks me onto the bus then run out to tip the baggage kid for being a normal human being. The bus is a double-decker and we're on the plush bottom level. The seats are huge and cushy and recline well past 45 degrees. The air-conditioning works. We're both dozing before we hit the open road. Kelly gets solid chunks of sleep, and I'm out straight through to Trujillo. We arrive, clattering along ruined pavement at 5:30am, to a dark, open-air garage. We load our bikes, set our lights to blinking, and ride into the still, moonless night. We find a gas station at the first big intersection, buy water, drink coffee, and wait for the sun to rise. It's cool in the early morning and I'm buzzing to be in a new place. The road is flat and we move with speed towards the beach.